The term “slow burn” is overused in the current critical era, but alternative phrases like “deliberately paced” don’t quite capture the mood. Since its pilot episode, the horror series Apple TV+ more Servant seems to have internalized this type of approach in his narration. Created by Tony Basgallop and executive produced by M.Night Shyamalan (who also directed the pilot and several other episodes), Servant follows local TV correspondent Dorothy Turner (Laurent Ambroise) and her chef consultant husband, Sean (Toby Kebel), a Philadelphia couple who hire a nanny, the sweet and mysterious Leanne (Free Nell Tiger), to help take care of their “baby”. In fact, the couple tragically lost their baby, Jericho, and used a lifelike reborn doll to help Dorothy deal with her grief. Naturally, at the end of the pilot episode, “Jericho” is suddenly a real boy.
The first two seasons of Servant deal with shock, anger, and Sean’s eventual acceptance of Leanne’s place in their lives, as Dorothy comes to terms with the “real” Jericho, having never come to terms with the horrific accident that led to her death of their baby. Sean teams up with Dorothy’s privileged, alcoholic brother, Julian (Rupert Grintin his best performance since the Harry Potter completed films), to investigate Leanne’s past and determine her true intentions.
The Season 1 cliffhanger finale saw Leanne’s past catch up with her, as her equally mysterious Uncle George (Boris McGiver) and Aunt May (Allison Elliot) appear at the Turners’ townhouse with a crowd of followers in tow. These appear to be the members of a sect called the Church of Minor Saints, once led by Aunt May, but supposedly they all burned to death in a fire during a confrontation with agents of the ATF years ago. Leanne disappears with them (literally disappearing in the middle of a group hug), and Jericho becomes a creepy, realistic doll again. In Season 2, Dorothy now sees the doll version of Jericho for what she is, but rather than face her grief and guilt, she believes Leanne kidnapped Jericho and is consumed by her search for the two. Manifestations of Leanne’s powers – the extent of which remains undefined in Season 3 – convince Sean and Julian that she shouldn’t be laughed at.
By the time Season 3 opens, Leanne has completely separated herself from the mysterious cultists who pursue her. Sean and Dorothy have accepted Leanne as part of the family, and while troubled Julian is (rather) sober from an overdose (having been revived by Leanne), he is somewhat in Leanne’s grip as the two maintain a sexual relationship. Leanne has what she always wanted: Dorothy’s trust and acceptance and a place in the Turner family. Yet she remains paranoid, expecting retaliation, and will barely leave the house. When Sean begins feeding a group of homeless people who gather in the nearby park, Leanne thinks they might be a threat…until the real threat shows up. At a block party, Leanne is attacked, presumably by remnants of the cult. The homeless contingent comes to her aid and reveals that they are devoted to her.
Halfway through the season, the dynamic changes. After her attack, Leanne becomes bolder – and ruder – towards Dorothy. We’ve seen what Leanne can do before: transform the doll into a real baby and back again, cracking the attic window into her rebellious displays (seemingly against god). In a memorably grotesque Season 3 episode, Sean’s protege Tobe (Tony Revolori), gets his girlfriend, Sylvia (Nadia Alexander), a gig as Sean’s assistant at a high profile lunch. She is unbearably rude and demeaning to Tobe, which angers Leanne. At the end, Sylvia slips on a puddle of sauce and hangs her ring in a providentially placed pull hook (overhanging the stage like Chekhov’s pistol). The hook rips his finger off (and Tobe accidentally purees it in the trash). The audience is left with the certainty that Leanne somehow manipulated the small events leading up to Sylvia’s mutilation.
Sean is offered an animated concert on “Gourmet Gauntlet”, the Excellent chef– like a reality TV show he was co-hosting in Los Angeles when Jericho died. Occasional mentions of Sean’s previous stint on the show disturb Dorothy, who claims she doesn’t remember any of it. We slowly realize that she still hasn’t fully allowed herself to consciously process what happened in Jericho, and her memories remain repressed. As Leanne becomes more assertive, Sean privately turns to religion, something he keeps from the apparently atheist Dorothy. Julian betrays Dorothy’s trust by secretly ordering a DNA test to determine if this Jericho is really her baby. He confuses Dorothy’s hair with the similar hair of a visiting mother from a disastrous Mommy & Me class that Dorothy hosted in the house, rendering the whole thing moot.
Faced with Leanne’s behavior, what she sees as a lie on Sean’s part, as well as Julian’s reckless move with the DNA test, Dorothy begins to crumble. She refuses to let Leanne touch Jericho (and before all the chaos she intentionally and inadvertently caused Leanna was hired to be the boy’s nanny), Sean is sleeping on the couch and Julian is most definitely on the shit list of his sister. Dorothy tries various schemes to get rid of Leanne, ranging from the very clever and subtle (arranging for her to attend a dance school in New Jersey) to the desperate and transparent (having her father send a shrink to examine Leanne ). Nothing works.
Dorothy’s plan to have Leanne seen as a danger to herself and others and therefore committed against her will backfires. Dorothy’s erratic behavior is seen as far more dangerous to Jericho than Leanne, who reverts to her primitive, proper attitude for her interview. As “Mama,” the Season 3 finale opens, Dorothy is seemingly herself: supportive and cooperative with Leanne, even affectionate with Sean. Neither Dorothy’s brother nor husband buys the deed, and Julian points out that his sister only plays games when she thinks she’s won in her head. Sure enough, in the show’s signature slow-burning, deliberately paced style (directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan, daughter of M. Night), Dorothy has what she intends to be one last night with Sean. His plan now is to just cut and run. She calls an Uber in the middle of the night, grabs Jericho, and is about to leave when Leanne finds her. As Dorothy unleashes her pent up fury against them all, a plot device that has been carefully developed all season finds its resolution.
The house rotted under them, which is a not-so-subtle metaphor for Leanne’s influence. The Turner house is infested with termites, which Leanne may or may not have manifested into existence. So much about his abilities remains a mystery. Dorothy walks away from them with Jericho and leans against the wooden railing at the top of the steep and alarming Turners staircase. The termites and all the other assorted pests have done their job well, and it gives in. We could consider it a coincidence, but Leanne says, “I’m sorry, Dorothy,” just before the railing gives way. Leanne deftly grabs Jericho as Dorothy flies through the air.
Hell is other people
Dorothy Turners falls to the ground, slamming into several ramps along the way. It’s a gruesome and visceral moment, by far the most shocking turn of events in a show full of the kind of all-out horror we’re used to seeing only in movies. Three seasons of terror, pain and repression have led to this moment. With Dorothy’s eyes wide open as the camera slowly pulls away from her, we’d have to assume she won’t survive this fall. If she doesn’t, it deprives her Servant of a character who has become (somewhat surprisingly) the moral center of the series.
Dorothy was a new mother with a husband halfway across the continent when they lost Jericho. As a parent of two young children, the loss of Jericho hurt me. Can childless viewers really understand the kind of deep weariness that comes with caring for a newborn? Maybe, but if not, they might be tempted to judge Dorothy mercilessly, as Leanne did when she first arrived in the Turner household. Dorothy’s rejection of Leanne’s powers seems to have been at least partially triggered by flashes of her repressed memories. She cannot consciously face her guilt, and by coming to terms with Leanne and her powers – Jericho or no Jericho – Sean and Julian have let Dorothy down and are complicit in her likely death.
American society claims to love and respect mothers. Servant seems to say quite cleverly the opposite.
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